Conventional wisdom tells us that a best practice for board composition is to have a distribution of the “three Ws,” namely, work, wealth and wisdom in as many board members as possible. The more board members that have some or all of these traits, the more effective boards will be. In Jewish day schools, there seems to be a fourth W that is present in many effective boards: “went here,” or a close family member of someone who did. This is especially true for schools and communities that have a long history. Alumni, parents of alumni and even grandparents are all rich pools of talent often willing to lend their skills and time to volunteer at their own or a family member’s Jewish alma mater in a board capacity.
While it may be true that having too many alumni as board members can sometimes run the risk of fostering groupthink, for the most part, alumni have many more positives to add to a board than any potential negatives. This, combined with the fact that there is not always an abundant pool of lay leaders in small to medium Jewish communities, makes it even more important to cultivate this source of potential board members.
At Addlestone Hebrew Academy in Charleston, South Carolina, a day school celebrating its 65th anniversary this year, over 80% of the board members are alumni of the school or are closely related. When surveyed about their motivation for serving, the majority of respondents told a story about a key relationship they or their parents had had with someone in the school when they were younger. Their current involvement in the school now seemed natural as a display of gratitude and reciprocation to give back to the school for what the school had done for them and their family in the past.
The following story written by a board member illustrates this phenomenon.
I often think whom I would be if I didn’t attend CHI (Charleston Hebrew Institute, the forerunner of Addlestone Hebrew Academy). I am forever conscious of a cheshbon hanefesh, literally, “an accounting of the soul.” Could I have inadvertently hurt someone’s feelings, could I have been more diplomatic, was I considerate, did I do the right thing? Granted, my mother’s training had a huge impact on these thoughts. However, I believe that my training at CHI molded me into whom I am today.
A few months before my mother passed away, she informed me that she had an outstanding balance on her pledge to CHI. She asked me to be sure to satisfy that pledge should it be outstanding at the time of her death. Sadly, she passed away within a few months after that conversation. She never forgot her obligation to the school and was so appreciative for the outstanding education that I received at CHI. When I moved back to Charleston a few years ago, I knew I wanted to give back to the school, and it is my privilege to do so.
What is striking about these types of responses is how much strong emotional connections, as opposed to purely rational explanations, play a major part in motivating board members to participate. One of the recurring themes from board members is the nostalgic memories they have of parents or grandparents who were volunteer lay leaders in the school’s early years, or the impact of Jewish role models and formative learning experiences that have remained with them through their years of schooling and beyond.
Alumni play a key role in the peer-to- peer solicitation of the involvement of new board members. Leading by example, current board members who are alumni have great credibility when recruiting others to serve on the board or committees. Camaraderie nurtured in youth remains a powerful motivator for adults looking to continue those relationships.
Our board has an alumni outreach chair who uses social media to connect with graduates from different years. This is not only to develop or solidify relationships for fundraising purposes but also helps identify potential “4W” lay leaders and creates a pipeline of talent for future board members. The asks start small, volunteering for an event or a committee role, ultimately helping to identify the next generation of future board members and leaders.
Perhaps most importantly, Jewish day school alumni have a clear understanding of the school’s legacy and ethos that its founders envisioned, what school accreditation models now call “purpose statements” explaining the compelling reason for why the school exists. They carry with them an intuitive knowledge of and appreciation for the school that is impossible to replicate. Spanning emotion and intellect, history and the present, alumni provide invaluable leadership for day school boards, confidently embodying the school’s past while lovingly building its future.